1960 may have been the year when public trust in the United States government began its long, fitful descent into the dark abyss of mistrust in which we now find ourselves.
Strangely, the U.S. government’s slide towards the dark side of deceit might have begun in the modern era with a straight-shooting president: Ike.
President Dwight Eisenhower was a war hero. He had commandeered the Allied invasion of Fortress Europe to defeat Nazism. In the spring of 1960, he was closing out his second term as president.
Then the unexpected happened.
In May, Eisenhower was informed by his national security advisors that a CIA U-2 spy plane piloted by Gary Powers had disappeared somewhere over central Soviet Union. The president was assured that Powers could not possibly have survived such a catastrophic failure [or shoot down] and that the plane itself was certainly demolished.
This rationale gave just enough room for a CIA-inspired fantasy to cover up that the US was frequently intruding far into Soviet airspace.
Eisenhower was reluctant to lie to the American public about the true nature of the mission, but he went along with the lie based on the advice of his senior aides.
He related to the world that the aircraft was simply used for weather research and it had accidentally strayed deep into Soviet territory. A hasty, but rather elaborate cover up was put into motion.
Imagine Eisenhower’s fury and embarrassment when Nikita Khrushchev joyfully exposed the U.S. President’s lies to the world. The Soviet Premier presented not only the remains of the U-2 spy aircraft but placed on public trial the spy pilot Gary Powers for good measure. It turns out that the CIA’s best and brightest had pretty much gotten everything wrong.
Eisenhower was reportedly prepared to resign over the ensuing international and domestic political debacle.
Fast forward. During interceding decades, other U.S. government lies have been exposed and variously debated. Recall the questions surrounding the Tonkin Gulf incident which was used as a casus belli for U.S. involvement in the Vietnam “conflict.” Recall Watergate’s famous phrase, “What did the president know and when did he know it.” Ditto Bill Clinton’s sexual scandals and deceits. And more recently, we are forced to endure countless unsubstantiated Trump claims, including that millions of illegal votes were cast in the 2016 election, all for Hillary Clinton. The list goes on. Daily.
We are now infected with the bacillus of government mistrust and hypocrisy at the highest levels of governance. Doubt and skepticism are poisoning our representative democracy at its roots.
The daily Kabuki of White House spokesman Sean Spicer sailing blithely through dense fogs of equivocation is enough to drain any optimist of hope. Information free briefings are daily offerings made by our duly elected government. Left, right or center, all the obfuscations and deflections contribute to the truth carnage.
Be they federal, state, or local officials – professional prevaricators are corrupting one of the primary underpinnings of democratic rule: public trust in what our elected officials, and their spokespersons, say, write and plainly mean.
Seventy-five years ago George Orwell wrote, ”The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world.” His ominous observation could have been written yesterday. It rings true today and should serve as an alarm for democracy defenders planet-wide.
We find ourselves today wading through an Orwellian miasma of “fake” news and “alternative” facts. As responsible citizens and news organizations try to right the ship of truth in these storm tossed times, let us remember what Ike eventually did back in 1960. He publicly admitted to the American people that he had lied.
Today, if only our government officials, too, could be big enough and bold enough adhere to objective truths and admit when untruths are spewed dangerously into public discourse.
And better yet, let us hope that our government representatives simply stop lying.